My first Semana Santa (or Holy Week) in Spain wasn’t that holy at all. It was relaxing, carefree with plentiful food, wine and delicious English chocolate, good humour and a touch of exploration thrown in for good measure – just what every Easter should be really.
I took off to Alicante for a well-awaited week in the sun. Somehow I managed to escape to the only part of the country that wasn’t destined for rain the entire week as a rather unusual and somewhat large low swept over. Lucky me! In all fairness, it did rain on a couple of occasions but for the most part the weather was balmy and I actually managed to break the winter legs out of their jeans for a spot of sun on more than one occasion.
My friend-come-fantastic-travel-companion (whom for the purpose of this blog shall be named, Goldilocks) and I set out on the four-hour journey by train from Cordoba to Albacete to complete Leg 1. Once in Albacete, we decided we’d take a couple of hours to look around and have lunch before our next leg, a two-hour bus ride to Alicante.
We’d theorised that there would be a luggage hold in the station where we could store our suitcases during this time. Best laid plans. It turns out that most modern European train and bus terminals are now disposing of this feature, you’ll often find they only remain in the older stations. Never mind, we figured we’d explore anyway. Suitcases in tow. I guess that’s why they call it luggage. Lug we did. We moved slowly and surely – needless to say we didn’t get very far.
On we lugged into the city centre and there we found a charming park. With exactly what we were looking for – an outdoor café to get a bite to eat and to sit and relish the warm weather. The service at Mahou was impressive, even if a little pricey. And Goldilocks and I were silly enough to order salmorejo, the specialty of our region, Cordoba. Hence, a little disappointing. But the goat’s cheese salad and the salmon bruschetta were exquisite.
By first impressions, Albacete is a charming little city. In southeastern Spain in the autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha, it has a population of about 170,000. It’s clean, tidy and has some interesting architecture. After coming direct from the heart of Andalucia, I could see the marked differences that exist between the regions in Spain straight away.
Beyond a nice amble, I couldn’t advise what else there is to do there – only for mere lack of time and the aforementioned luggage we had with us. We did spot a number of knife stores while on our lug and later discovered that the city has been known for the manufacture of fine daggers, scissors and knives. That explains that. All in all, it was worth a quick stop. After a long, lazy lunch and a nice lug through the park, we returned to the bus station ready for Leg 2 – to Alicante.
Alicante, or Alacant (in Valencian) is a historic mediterranean port in the south of the Valencian Community. The population of the metropolitan area (including Elche and satellite towns) was apparently estimated to be 771,061 in 2011, ranking as the eighth-largest metropolitan area in Spain.
However, this figure doesn’t account for a high portion of unofficial residents in the region such as, illegal immigrants, permanent residents who have moved from other parts of Spain (namely, Madrid) or Northern Europeans who reside there but remain legal residents of their home countries.
It certainly feels a lot bigger than Cordoba anyway and it has a generous ex-pat community consisting of many Brits and Scandinavians, but also a large contingent of immigrants from Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina. The city’s multicultural nature brings with it an exciting array of foods and fashions not otherwise seen or heard of in the depths of Andalucia. Goldilocks and I were very excited to eat curry and Chinese again.
Despite the number of English speakers in Alicante, which I often perceive as an immediate con, the place still retains its character and with a polished authenticity (after living in Andalucia, you can appreciate that this municipality has plenty more money to invest in infrastructure and tourism), the old quarter really captured me. In fact, it took me rather by surprise.
Characterised by cute bars and countless churrerias, you definitely feel as though you are still in Spain. Ambling, narrow streets, gorgeous churches and small houses decorated with Spanish flags and colourful pot plants wind their way up to one of the most notable features of the city, the Castle of Santa Barbara. The castle sits high above the city and is gloriously lit at night.
Goldilocks and I were there at the perfect timing. Thinking that Good Friday would mean that all the Spanish shops would be closed and the city would become a ghost town, we ventured in to the heart of the old quarter one evening only to find an atmosphere buzzing with excitement and bustling with energy.
Street-side stalls, food vendors, and families everywhere – something was clearly happening. As we wandered the old quarter we stumbled upon one of the Holy Week processions that Spain is known for.
We stood in awe of the skill and expertise behind the parade. The entire scene was alive with colour and sound with the variety of tunics, hoods, symbols and banners. Hundreds of members of the religious fraternities associated with the church were carrying candles, rods or banners depending on their level of seniority.
The slow, rhythmic beating of the drums welcome in the swaying bearers of the float, in this case, an ornate and detailed statue of Mary. The strength and coordination involved in negotiating the narrow alleys is one to be marveled at. The whole experience is very moving for anyone watching – religious or not.
The boardwalk Explanada de España is lined by large palm trees and is paved with some 6.5 million marble floor tiles, their wave-like pattern is very striking and well-suited to this pretty port side promenade. For the people of Alicante, it is the meeting place for the traditional Spanish paseo, or stroll along the waterfront in the evenings, and a venue for various market stalls and street side performers.
During my exploration of the Alicante province, I couldn’t have been more captivated than I was with Elche. I don’t really know what it was. Maybe it was the quaintness of the place – it seemed, more Spanish and less commercial, less touristic. It’s a small city, and while part of it is coastal, the centre is about 11 kms from the sea. Close enough, I say.
The Palm Grove of Elche is an orchard of over 200,000 palm trees and it is a peaceful and picturesque place to relax. Altamira Castle is located next to this and was originally built during the 12th century. Since, it has been a fortress, a fabric plant, a town hall and a prison during the Spanish Civil War, but now, it is a history museum. And the Basilica of Santa Maria de Elche is one to be marveled at.
We also took a trip to Benidorm. I’d call it the Gold Coast of Spain. This is primarily a resort town – not really my cup of tea but I have to admit, the drive into the city is striking.
According to the Urban Age project, Benidorm has the most high-rise buildings per capita in the world. As you enter the city, you can see hundreds of skyscrapers following the coastline, however interestingly, Benidorm itself is dwarfed by the surrounding mountain range, the 1406m tall Puig Campana, which is one of the most impressive mountains of the Costa Blanca. If you’re visiting, it’s well worth a walk up to the lookout in the old quarter. It’s pretty spectacular.
So all-in-all, it was a fabulous week. It was great to get out and see another region of Spain, taste a slice of Semana Santa tradition, and most of all, relax in the impending summer sun. Now, it’s back to work for Goldilocks and I. At least, until our next holiday in May.